Prior to the opening of Ellis Island in 1892, immigration was controlled by the states, not the Federal government. States advocated that immigration be a Federal issue, and with the passage of the Immigration Act of March 3, 1891, immigration law was turned over to the Federal government.
a. Established the Bureau of Immigration under the Treasury Department to administer all immigration laws (except the Chinese Exclusion Act).
b. Further restricted immigration by adding to the inadmissible classes- persons likely to become public charges, persons suffering from contagious disease, felons, persons convicted of other crimes or misdemeanors, polygamists, aliens assisted by others by payment of passage, and forbade the encouragement of immigration by means of advertisement.
The Act of March 3, 1893 further expanded the law, by adding reporting requirements. After the law went into effect, each passenger had to answer up to 31 questions, recorded on manifest lists, before boarding the ship. Questions included, among others: name, age, sex, marital status, occupation, nationality, ability to read or write, race, physical and mental health, last residence, and the name and address of the nearest relative or friend in the immigrant’s country of origin.
Immigrants were asked if they had at least $25, whether they had ever been in prison, an almshouse, or an institution, or if they were polygamists or anarchists. Steamship lines were also responsible for medical examinations of the immigrants before departing the port. Disinfection of both immigrants and baggage, and vaccinations were routinely performed at the ports.
After questioning and examinations, immigrants were led to their accommodations on board. Steerage passengers walked past the tiny deck space, squeezed past the ship’s machinery and were directed down the steep stairways into the enclosed lower decks.
There were three types of lodging: first class, second class, and steerage. Only steerage passengers were processed at Ellis Island, the first and second class passengers were “inspected” onboard the ship before being transferred to New York.
Steerage was enormously profitable for steamship companies. The average cost of a ticket was $30, and larger ships could hold from 1,500 to 2,000 immigrants, netting a profit of $45,000 to $60,000 for a single, one-way voyage. The cost to feed a single immigrant was only 60 cents a day.
For immigrants who voyaged early, life in steerage was a horrific experience. The conditions were so crowded, dark, unsanitary and foul-smelling, that they were the single most important cause of America’s early immigration laws, specifically the United States Passenger Act of 1882. These laws were unfortunately almost impossible to enforce and steerage conditions remained deplorable. At one time, the average passenger mortality rate was 10% per voyage.
From a 1911 report of the United States Immigration Commission:
“The open deck space reserved for steerage passengers is usually very limited, and situated in the worst part of the ship, subject to the most violent motion, to the dirt from the stacks and the odors from the hold and galleys… the only provisions for eating are frequently shelves or benches along the sides or in the passages of sleeping compartments.”
“The ventilation is almost always inadequate, and the air soon becomes foul. The unattended vomit of the seasick, the odors of not too clean bodies, the reek of food and the awful stench of the nearby toilet rooms make the atmosphere of steerage such that it is a marvel that human flesh can endure it…”
In spite of the miserable conditions, the immigrants had faith in the future. The trip from Italy to the United States took an average of two weeks, depending on the ship and weather. To pass the time, immigrants played cards, sang, danced, and talked about life in America, rehearsing the answers to immigration inspectors’ questions, and learning the new language.